This interview was conducted by mail over a two-year period during 1977 and 1978.
I: Let me give you a quotation from Mallarmé and see whether you think it describes your conception of fiction, though he is speaking about poetry: “To name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing little by little; to suggest it, that is the illusion. It is the perfect handling of the mystery that Constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of mind or inversely to choose an object and to disengage from it a State of mind, by a series of unriddlings.”
NM: The Mallarmé quote. Yes. Exactly. At the back of all this is the feeling that what language is fitted for is the saying of what things are not rather than what they are. I think this has been suggested by various philosophers, linguists, etc., at various times. It connects with the theologians’ point that you can say what God is not, but not (easily) what. He is. So when Mallarmé says that to name a thing is to do away with the enjoyment of a poem, this can be elaborated into the fact that you can’t name the object of joy: there is something in the mechanism of the mind almost that simply prevents this: the “satisfaction of guessing little by little” is a description of the way in which the mind, in its use of language, does work: the riddling and unriddling—the process—constitutes the fact, as it were as well as the symbol. What has come to interest me more and more over the last years are descriptions of people who try to understand the workings of brain/mind. Poetry in this way seems a model of the way things work—of “truth.” Direct naming etc., seems like propaganda.
I: And let’s see what you can make of this quote from E. M. Forster: “We have entered a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. Information is true if it’s accurate. A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem to nothing but itself. Information is relative. A poem is absolute.”
NM: Forster’s quote I don’t think makes much sense. To say a poem is absolute is saying nothing because an ink blot can be absolute. Yet you put into it what you like. So it becomes totally relative. Once you claim a fiction “has a new standard of truth” (with which I agree–I mean I agree that a novel or poem “should” suggest a “new” standard of truth), once you bring “truth” in you are suggesting the relation of something (“language”) to something else (“experience”). But if your experience is not nameable, but a riddle, then what the poem or novel has to do is present the truth of the riddle. But this is still not “absolute.” It is a passionate effort to describe experience.
I: I do not quite know how to formulate this question. It might be the standard question of what were the origins of Impossible object, how did you first begin writing it, was it from the start a series of stories or did that method become imperative after having written the first story, etc. It is this question, I suppose, but it comes out of my complete awe at that novel’s process. That is, I know that this novel could not have been written, and yet it’s there. So, I am asking about the design of the novel and how that design was arrived at.
NM: Impossible Object. Ah. Well, there were two or three strands I think that came together to give the book its form. l) My coming across, quite by accident, the symbol of an Impossible Object—the triangle that can exist in two dimensions but not in three; this was in a short newspaper feature in the Observer (London Sunday)—”the feature was describing some work that had been done by two psychologists (one of whom was called Penrose I think) who had published a short paper in a learned journal. The image of the triangle excited me greatly and I went off to the library to look up the original learned article, which didn’t seem to be saying much except that these images could be created. The psychologists didn’t seem to be making any suggestions beyond this. Anyway–what had excited me was the idea that this visual image was a symbol of the other two strands that were moving around in my mind at that time 2) For a long while I had been obsessed with the idea (or the way of putting the idea) that to have a good life was “impossible” and it was only when one recognized the “impossibility” that it became possible. I think this sort of idea had been with me from the very beginning of my writing novels: my first three novels had fairly conventional tragic/romantic stories: the first about the impossibilities attendant on war, the second about those attendant on romantic love; in both the protagonists were doomed to tragedy, whatever their good intentions. In the third novel, Corruption, there was an effort to break out of this conventional pattern: but still, life could only “work” through renunciation. After these three novels I gave up writing novels for a time; I was dissatisfied with romantic doom, yet didn’t see much way around it. I became something of a Christian, specifically in an effort to find out something of all this. But it was in my process of getting out of conventional Christianity, rather than getting in, that I got hold of the idea that all right, life is impossible, but once you know it’s impossible, all right, it mysteriously isn’t. I put this into two books I wrote at this time: Experience and Religion, a sort of long aphoristic essay, and The Life of Raymond Raynes, which was a biography of an Anglican monk who had much influenced me and was the only holy man I have ever met. It was through him think that there came the idea of life being impossible/possible.
But when I started writing novels again there was the problem of how to put this into a novel form. I wrote Meeting Place and Accident and Assassins and although all these were talking “about” the idea and were in a sense about people trying to deal with the idea, they were not quite in the form of the idea. I don’t think I had much idea about the form of the idea–till I saw that Impossible Triangle.
The third strand in the origin of the book was the fact that after finishing Assassins I took a break and travelled round the U.S. and Mexico largely on my own and started scribbling those bits of prose that later were the passages in italics in Impossible Object. If did not think much what I was writing them for, except that I knew I wanted my next novel to be in some less Conventional form than straight narrative. When I got home (this was in 1965 or ’66 I suppose), I didn’t know much more what to do with my bits in italics so I thought I’d put down on paper a couple of short stories that I’d had in Itty mind for some time; the first one was what became the third story in Impossible Object the husband and wife in North Africa. The second story was the one which became the first story in Impossible Object: the young girl electrocuted. Both these stories had been sparked off by background events in my own life, though the dramatic incidents were wholly invented. So I was writing these two stories (which were really about the same people) and wondering about my bits in italics and ruminating upon Impossible Objects, one or two mere images of which I had dug up out of the library when — e-E remember clearly, I was like Archimedes in my bath. Bingo. Well not quite like that. But I did suddenly realize that I had something that, with luck and effort, I could make go, I already had ideas for three or more of the stories. (The origin of “Journey into the Mind” was the trip. I’d made across the U.S. with a girl on that very slow train called the Santa Fe Special or some such: for the Tower of Pisa, read the Grand Canyon.) The only two stories that I had to create after the idea for the whole book had come to me were, I think, the last two.
The problem of course as I went on became how to make the idea of the structure work–that is, it was all very well having the impossible image, but in the riddling connections (or slightly misplaced connections) between the various stories, how much would readers follow me and how much would they not. Or rather–how much was I myself in control of what I was doing. The key problem here (as I went on) became that of the death of the baby, or the nondeath of the baby. It was only after wondering about this that I got the idea of the girl “liking unhappy endings” so “I’ve given you an unhappy end”; and the hints, in the second and fifth stories (?) that the unhappy end might thus just be a story, and the baby in fact is alive. This was obviously a difficult idea to pull off, but did seem to be a true literary equivalent of the impossible image: a representation of the fact that human beings seem inevitably to Construct impossibilities and tragedies (such is their nature) but that when they recognize this ” (from some further viewpoint) they in some sense are absolved from the predicament. So–the impossible predicament, in three dimensions, becomes possible if you can stand back (into a fourth) and represent it in art (in two).
Well. Well. The descriptive language itself becomes impossible here. I either pulled off the book, or I didn’t.
I: I have here in my notes a comment I made about your absolute concern with the phrase and the sentence; I suspect that what I meant is that you seem preoccupied with making a sentence interesting. And that interest is achieved by twisting it, or by putting something unexpected into it. In other words, its primary function is not to convey information and thereby to move the “story” along. So many of your sentences do three or four things at once–perhaps some information, an echo of something earlier, a prefigurement of something later, and then an ironic and/or comic rendering of the first three.
NM: Yes. I think I was trying to make my sentences say three or four things at once before it came to Isle how to try to do this with my Impossible Object stories, though in the early novels this was done in a heavy-handed way, plugging in the three or four things, rather than getting them all off the ground at once. (This was an instinct; I’d worked out nothing by then. It was just that if I was to start writing novels again, I could not bore myself) But the feeling was—if I was going to try to write something different from the old narrative tragic/romantic novel-or indeed something different from the long distressed confession re-not only the form of the book, but the form of each sentence had to be in a different style—or else the reader (or indeed myself as writer) would not be reminded of what I was trying to be doing, and would naturally slip back into an expectation of the tragic/romantic complaining story. So the sentences, yes, had to be a model of the whole, and what the whole was trying to do. At the back of all this, again, was the feeling that this was the only way to write about things as they are, life, rather than things as they are not, death. That is, life is something teeming burgeoning, constantly adapting, changing itself, in order as it were to stay the same (a cell under a microscope); or rather, not quite the same, but just enough the “same” to be able as an identity to develop. And the reason why so much literature is to do with doom and death is to do with the nature of simple “what-happens-next” narrative language.
I: Related to the last question is the observation that you use certain phrases and objects to so to speak, hold things together. In Natalie Natalia, for example, these are the Stitches: sky universe, angels, devils, witches, mountain, sword, fountain fire sun, desert, sea war, flowers, dragon Christmas, mirrors, whirlpools, birds, trees, balloons, and about twenty other Words. Part of the game-like quality of your fiction is to see how you are going to get these words in where they are going to show up, how many echoes you can create with them. Observation two: what I find most interesting about these words and phrases is that you create their meaning within the context of the story. That is, the particular words are almost arbitrary and do not depend upon the reader’s associations. You create the association. In fact, you probably break down naturalistic associations that the reader may bring to the work. As with Joyce and a very few others, one enters a self-contained world.
NM: Yes. But with so much teeming, burgeoning there have to be constants to hold things together; to give shape even if a constantly glittering shape, and not the firmness of rigor mortis. Shape is vital to life, even if appearing and disappearing like an Impossible Object. Hence I suppose my use of the words such as you mention. When I’m writing I don’t think I’m conscious of them. But I suppose I’m conscious of having to keep a hold on–my own mind? the minds of my readers? Yes, in a sense the words are arbitrary because I am not thinking what might be a reader’s “natural” association and perhaps I am even challenging what might be a natural association and breaking it up; but in some sense I don’t think they are quite arbitrary because I think there is some common fund of archetypal imagery (in something akin to Jung’s sense) which almost everyone has and which can be tapped by these words. So these arbitrary images are arbitrary in their placing in the story but their purpose I think is to give the reader a root, a life-line, back into some common shared World that is not arbitrary–images of experience almost every human being has shared. So this too, as a basis, can provide a shape for the story.
I: There is a kind of fiction that I can no longer read: it is that which tries to hold my attention in terms of “what happens next.” Within the first few pages of such a novel or story, one is given a problem (either in terms of character or plot) that will take the author the rest of the story to unravel. Such a story may begin with something like–“Mrs. Coldwater was waiting for the bus one day when suddenly she noticed that the street sign was painted orange. She wondered why she had never before noticed this.” This will be the first revelation in a long series and the author will drag the reader through every one of them. It seems to me that your fiction is far removed from this kind of engineering. I usually do not know what will be happening from one line to the next. I suppose that this observation is related to my earlier one about your Concern with the composition of a sentence,
NM: Yes! In one of the things I have been writing last, I use your very words-e- that what is no longer of interest is ‘what happens next’ but—what is happening now.” This last gloss (“what is happening now”) arises I think—I mean, I think the interest in it arises from—what we’ve been talking about before; this is an interest in the “truth” of what things are rather than an obsession with “what happens next,” which is propaganda. (You can make up anything as what’s going to happen next: then when it doesn’t that’s tragic: ) But “what is happening now” is a true form of enquiry; and to do With life: the correct functioning of a human being in life: what his mind’s fitted for. I’m conscious of wandering a bit here. One wanders into the area of that which cannot be talked about-or, which can only be talked about in impossible novels
I: Let me quote you to yourself from Impossible Object: “You can only get the whole of a person by this sort of art, deception.” If this reflects what you think, would you explain why this is so and how it is accomplished?
NM: Art and deception. I think that what I meant here is what I’ve talked about before—at the very end of my long answer to your third question. The mark of a living thing is to be involved in opposites (impossibilities): the living cell that has to be continually adapting itself to stay alive, with its identity. So to describe “life” you have to have art–which is a model in two dimensions, as it were, of the mysteries of living things which are always just outside the scope of three. But I now don’t like the word “deception.” I’d rather have “cunning” or “skill”—that of a juggler who can keep several balls (meanings) up in the air at the same time. Looking up the quote, I see I was talking about the Egyptians painting full-front and profile at the same time. So this is a sort of impossible object—trying to get the whole of a person, which you can never see in reality (in three dimensions) but which you know is there—so you can draw it in art (two).
I: I think that you will agree that the concern, both thematic and technical at the center of your work is that of “opposites.” Do you become conscious of such a concern after you have written? That is, I am assuming something here about the creative process: you do not begin with “ideas.” At what point do you discover that this is what you are working with?
NM: Opposites. Impossibilities. I think that this is answered in my long digression for your third question. At some stage in my life I got this obsession with “impossibilities,” not in the first place as an idea but as an experiences love as both creative and destructive: peace being what people said they wanted, but being boring: happiness being what one aimed at, but which could not be held. And together with this, what seemed to be the fact that literature (“good” literature) could only easily deal with life being to do with “failure”–not with life as a successfully going concern. And this being not because writers are perverse, but because there is something deep here in the nature of language. And language of course is representative of something about the way in which “consciousness” or the powers of description of consciousness work. So the effort of imaginative writing becomes that of trying to “say the unsayable.” What else are we trying to do? And what better?
I: I have been trying, without much success, to “place” you in a tradition wit. other moderns. A few names come to mind—Ford (The Good Soldier) Flaubert (Bouvard), Joyce, O’Brien, Firbank, Henry Green, John Hawkes, Jean Rhys. This may be a question about influences; or, it may be asking you to identify writers with whom you feel in company, I am struck by the fact that the writers you have mentioned in your letters do not seem similar to you—Fowles Salinger, and Patrick White.
NM: When I was young William Faulkner was my great love, not just because of the density of style, but because he seemed to be dealing with the question not of “what will happen next” but ‘what is happening now.” The first Faulkner novel I read was The Sound and the Fury, which I got hold of when we liberated a POW Camp in Italy in 1944 and I liberated the Red Cross Library, I was about twenty. I had never heard of Faulkner and the book was a knock-out; I’d never heard of anyone writing like this. Not only the style, but the way in which you don’t exactly know what on earth has happened or is happening till about page two hundred–then it all becomes apparent in a blinding flash. The whole book. This seemed to be not only intensely exciting (the wondering for two-hundred pages was exciting) but to be exactly like life. What in god’s name, after all was I doing aged twenty in Italy in a war? After that I got hold of everything I could of Faulkner’s. On my early romantic/tragic level, I thought the perfect novel was The Wild Palms.
My other two loves which came slightly later were Proust and Henry James: Proust because of his specific idea about life being “impossible” except in terms of art and memory; Henry James because although in a way he is dealing with “what will happen next,” his constant subtleties of shifting of his and his protagonists”, and his readers’ moral attitudes, make it into a question of “what is happening now”—I’m thinking of The Awkward Age or What Masie Knew or the end of Wings of the Dove. All these writers fed, and nurtured, my underlying passion; but if suppose were probably damaging to my style. I was haunted by Faulkner probably till Meeting Place.
Since then—yes, I see what you mean. I feel close to Salinger I suppose because in Franny and Zooey he was trying to describe someone influencing someone—consciously, by decision—Zooey trying to get Franny out of her state of “impossibility.” So this became some description of how, in life, an impossibility might be made possible. (In parenthesis—I don’t know now clear I make myself about this: my idea is that one cannot alter the impossibilities or tragedies of life; but by “standing back” from them–in art? in a state of mind within oneself of which art is a model?—one can make them possible; and thus life can be glimpsed for what it often is—a going concern.) But then, as you said yourself in an earlier letter, Salinger never got over killing Seymour in that first story—and then hadn’t provided himself with the form to bring him alive again–as I tried to do with the child in Impossible Object! Fowles I admire because The Magus was some sort of search on a grand scale, for “what is happening now”: though of course in style he’s totally different from me. Joyce of course had an enormous influence on my style; especially Portrait of the Artist and the early Stephen Dedalus bit of Ulysses. Also the last few pages of Finnegans Wake which do seem to me to be a marvelous and almost unique statement of life as a going concern. But still—90% of the book is unintelligible. It’s almost as if he was saying this –Look, this can’t be said, but you’ll find one or two diamonds among the gravel here and there. But one must be able to do it in a more readable way than that. I suppose I don’t think much about Joyce now because the influence just sank in and stayed there quietly.
Firbank, Green, yes; probably the same. But I’m often bored by Firbank. The Good Soldier I remember as being one of those books that I saw was very interesting (and good) but I didn’t much like. Perhaps it was too close to ae for comfort? I don’t know.
Henry Green is just being reprinted here. I’m going to reread him. I think Green probably influenced me more than I admit or know. I remember Concluding coming out first when I began writing, and its making a great impression. Perhaps he was too close for me easily to remember
But on the whole, now, I feel very much a loner. There are the few who have something of the same style, and there are the few who have something of the same feeling about life which they want to express; but I don’t know of anyone who’s so involved with connecting the one thing with the other.
I: I’ve seen the movie version of Accident a few times and find it difficult to judge its merits because I cannot separate it from the novel. It seems to me that your fiction is particularly hard to turn into film because so much takes place that is nonvisual. For instance, your use of “I thought”: how can that be rendered? A movie cannot accurately transfer the tone and texture of your prose. It doesn’t surprise me, by the way, that no one was ever able to make a good movie of a Hemingway novel, although Hemingway would seem to lend himself to such treatment. But in seeing the movie, you realize how good Hemingway’s prose is and that his “visual” quality is a product of the word, not the picture
NM: When Pinter showed me the first draft of his script for Accident I said fine, but I think you must get in the conversation at the end where Stephen and Charlie do communicate with one another straight on the question of what to do about Anna. Pinter said, Right: then three weeks later said –I can’t. I think this represented the way the film was different from the book. In the book there were all the games and the noncommunication: but there was the underlying “communication” of Stephen thinking to himself; and there was this almost final scene with Charlie when there is something practical to be done. That is, they have to decide what to do about Anna after the accident. If they tell the police, the police will find out she was driving, and her career will be put into hell. If they don’t tell the police, they’ll be covering up; and if they’re found, they’ll be endangering their own families. About this “impossibility” they communicate; and see that there is not much of an answer except, simply–to see it clearly. Then things take their course. Anna is not ruined: nor are they. There is William dead, yes. But . . .
. . . And so on. The way I saw it, there was this vital “communication at the end– or rather discussion–which was a verbal expression of the sort of thing Stephen had been “thinking.” Pinter wouldn’t really do any of this.–his specialty being noncommunication. But he still, rather unnervingly kept the story. Except that at the end Charlie was baffled and lonely. There had not been expression of his friendship with Stephen.
I: My observation about the film of Accident was directed at the inability (inevitable I think) to recreate the style, tone, atmosphere, and texture of the novel. Apart from those, there is no content. The scene in the movie in which William, Stephen, and Anna are canoeing, fails to make anything clear. When I saw it, I remembered the same scene in the novel in which so much as happening-in Stephen’s mind, in the images, in the interplay among the characters, in the manner of the narration: all of these things working together to say what is happening. On the one hand all that I am saying is that the movie cannot be the novel; on the other, however, I am pointing out that in your fiction (as in James, Green, Rhys, Flaubert, Faulkner) everything happens in terms of the words.
NM: I think the film version of Accident was clever because Pinter does have the ability to make his audience feel that there is something behind the events going on in his characters’ minds–but this something seems always to be blank, something lost and thus his characters’ words are the surfaces round a hollow. My characters, standing back from themselves, contain, in their parts that view events, a plethora of impressions and images that if some” times confused, are at any rate burgeoning, struggling-rand thus, simply (although they may be obscure) like life rather than death. It doesn’t matter if the reader doesn’t know exactly what is going on (nor indeed if my character knows exactly what is going on in his own mind) so long as he knows that there is an activity like life. Then if he “honours” this (as it were aesthetically) then, whatever happens, however uncontrolled, has a chance of making sense–the daemonic by being honoured, will make some sense. This is something like Proust’s view of life only being possible in terms of art–but with the person being conscious of this not just at the end of a story looking back, but during every minute of a story and of a lifer” so that this, again, is redolent of liveliness rather than something inanimate.
I: Again, I will quote you to yourself from Assassins: “And how much influence do we have over the small? Now that’s a theme for a modern writer.” Why the modern writer?
NM: The influence we have on the small. Ah. I wonder what I meant by this. I suppose—the way in which by “standing back” from an impossibility one can influence it? Or by thinking up some artifice, art, like that of Zooey, one can influence it? I think a theme for a “modern” writer because—why?—in the old days writers either had a background of religion, in which case the idea of influencing seemed to drop out altogether—in an age of enlightenment (as I’ve written somewhere) “what audiences were apt to appreciate were characters like automata.” There is curiously little art concerning the efficacy of reason—perhaps simply because reason is not noticeably efficacious. Even when existentialist artists came along with their themes of choice and freedom, in effect “choice” and “freedom” were made to appear absurd—Sartre never managed to write his final volume of the Chemins de la Liberté books. But there’s a sort of “scientific” language being evolved now to give some sort of picture of the relationship between the inside and outside worlds; some sort of circuitry between consciousness and reality. (I’m thinking of a writer like Gregory Bateson: do you know his Steps to an Ecology of Mind?) But it’s not really the job of scientists to create suitable symbolic languages that will become common property: and writers, it seems to me, here have the chance, but are falling down on their job. I’m talking a lot of rather vague “philosophy” because this is the only possible way to talk just here: but what I am trying to say is—that what I am trying to say can only perhaps properly be said in art. I feel the opportunities, however, for such a language have been given in some way by the Work done by Scientists and philosophers –
I: I felt a certain tension in Assassins between the needs of a political novel (i.e., its needs for external representation of event and character) and your interest in the unspoken, the implied, the spacial. I see you required to write one way and yet wanting to write another. Am I describing a tension that you may have experienced in writing the book?
NM: Assassins began as an effort to write a best-seller that would make money; to be made into a film, by a director friend of mine, who asked me for a story I thought the best way was to write a novel but then of course the story became much too complex and in my old style to be a best-seller—and it was Accident that was made into a film! I don’t think much about Assassins nowadays, but it was obviously an effort to say something that meant much to me—perhaps about my own childhood of the nature of political-personal carry-on that I find fascinating because there seem to be so many myths about it and the reality is not often described. That is—While the politicians are functioning it is assumed that they are powerful and rational and selfdetermining beings: then suddenly they are history and they appear all the time to have been helpless and half-witted (Nixon). Whereas in fact, although they are always largely helpless and goodness knows often enough half-witted, there is somewhere a sense in which politics does work—events are influenced, that is by the decisions people make—but not in the way that is mythically imagined. But if don’t think I gave myself much room to bring this to life in Assassins. I suppose I tried to do it again in Natalie Natalia—but then, people still didn’t see the actual stuff of what I was saying. There was the secret message that hero was supposed to pass on (and did pass on) to the African leader in prison which would help the leader’s escape from prison: this message not only had to be kept secret from others, but almost from one part of my hero’s mind because he was involved in “betrayal”: I succeeded in keeping it a secret from most of my readers, who apparently saw my hero’s trip to Africa as simply a failure. (Whereas in fact it was a success.) Which failure is what my hero wanted people to see, but I can hardly claim that this is what I wanted most of my readers to see.
I: I have already referred to the recurring words and images, or rather the pattern of repetitions. Does this kind of architecture require you to keep going back and adding words, phrases and sentences so that the prose will achieve a density?
NM: I rewrite a novel at least—what—four, five times: the first time is trying to find out what I am trying to say (I don’t take notes, or make plans; I just start off but the first version is in fact making notes and plans). Then twice I’ve done this I start again and try to write what I’ve found out I’m trying to do; then I try to write it in the best possible way; then I try to improve it; and so on and so on. As the rewrites continue I find the structuring of words and phrases—the repetitions and references—occurs naturally—the shape of the book is formed by a sort of process of accumulating a skeleton-like coral? Going through my latest novel for the very last time last week I found that when I came across a bad or banal phrase I would cross it out, and then put in some phrase which would add to the structure of the system of references—not that I had to drag into consciousness these things, but because they were somehow there in my mind bursting to be put in as necessary props, beams, ties for the story. It always strikes me how almost unbelievably bad are the early versions of my novels. But then “bad” isn’t really the word: any more tar it is the word for a four-month foetus in relation to a child,
I: Do you think that your work suggests that the moral and the imaginative facilities are the same?
NM: Yes, I do think that the moral and imaginative faculty are very closely related: simply because there are almost no “good” books saying “evil” things; except perhaps in romantic literature, where the destructiveness is for the most part turned against the self, so that “evil” is shown as self-destructive and thus in some further sense is “good.” I find this apparent fact quite staggeringly interesting; one that people have noted of course, but perhaps have surprisingly not gone into the implications of such an observation. For the exercise of one’s imaginative faculty becomes a moral imperative: the writing of a serious novel becomes an aid-to-life. Which is what I suppose I believe; or at least hope. And the reading, and appreciation, of such a work, becomes an aid-to-life.
I: What I am asking is whether your fiction suggests that the problems of life are aesthetic ones; if you will life and experience are like the initial conception of a novel, or perhaps the first draft. But, alas, the revisions and perfection of life are not apparently possible; however, if you begin to gain some distance from the experience even as it is taking place, you begin looking at it differently. It seems to me that the effort of most of your heroes is to see themselves as both characters in a novel and as readers of that novel. Thus, they begin to conceive of life as art and to give aesthetic meaning to it. I think that you were suggesting some such irony when you said that if you accept that life is not possible, then it becomes possible.
NM: To take life simply as a moral business doesn’t work, because choices in fact are often choices between evils: and good can come out of bad: but still, morally, one cannot choose bad. This is the sort of “impossible” predicament that one can stand back from however, as you say and perhaps get some working View of it aesthetically: to do this is like learning a style, rather than a code of morals. I think this style is what my characters try to find—by distancing themselves with part of themselves from another part that is experiencing what is taking place, they are able to hang on to something aesthetic and thus not get lost—although this does not of course save them from confusion and suffering. They still have some hope, some handle, by which to survive confusion and suffering. This style can be said to be ironic, yes. The quote from Goethe that I put at the beginning of Natalie Natalia is I think apt here—there is the unpredictable (but aesthetic) thread of the daemonic that exists in life (and has to be taken into account by humans if they are not to be bamboozled by life) that is like a warp to the moral woof. This can be taken into account neither by morals nor indeed by reason: but it does seem to me to be subject to aesthetics. Thus one can see one’s life as a novel; and by so doing perhaps make it something like a novel; or rather—glimpse in it a meaning while, with hard work, it makes itself; which is what a proper novel does. And this is a satisfactory experience, however turgid and clamorous the novel.
I: When you reread your own fiction, do you find flaws and lapses? Are they flaws that you could have done anything about, or are they somehow an inevitable part of the book?
NM: With the first three novels I’d cut a mass of the verbiage and the sentimental/romantic histrionics: or would I? I sometimes wonder, if they are ever reprinted. I’d certainly cut out some of the gross redundancies of the style. But perhaps the extravagance has some sort of authentic vitality, I had to look at a bit of my first novel Spaces of the Dark the other day and I found myself reading bits of it out loud to my wife who had never read it–and I had dreaded looking at it–and I found myself saying—This is mad! mad! but honestly not too bad.
I think with the second batch of books I’d almost certainly cut some of the overabundance of images and similes. There are just too many “likes. ” Anyway, this is what I think when I pick up a book and just glance at it. But then—if I read it through from start to finish, might I not want to leave it as creating, yes, its own, however overburgeoning, universe?
I often think that the macabre myth-like part II of Natalie was a mistake—simply because it must have stopped some people reading. But again, I’m not sure. I don’t think I’ve ever read an old book through from start to finish. Not after more than six months after writing it that is.
I think I would definitely want to make the impossible/possible structure more clear for the reader-e-I’d like to make the possibility of the child being alive more explicit in Impossible Object; and I’d like to make the “success” of the African mission more explicit in Natalie. I think I had too little confidence at the time.
I: I want to ask about what it means to be a comic writer. First, I mean comic to be funny. Second, I mean it as an attitude, perhaps ironic, that is in contrast to tragic or romantic. The romantic writer sees the lush green field with two lowers in it; the tragic writer sees the field with someone thinking of his dead lower; the comic writer sees the field with the two lovers (both of whom have had previous lovers) but he also sees the fly that is just about to land on one of their noses. The comic writer can be serious, and yet he also consistently allows for the presence of the ridiculous. So, do you think of yourself as a comic writer in the way that I’ve described him here? And I should ask do you laugh quite a bit at your own work?
NM: Yes, I think I am a comic writer in the way you describe rather than a tragic or a romantic writer: but there’s something in me that would like to get away from a traditional idea of “comic” too. As you said in one of your letters, we can laugh at Laurel and Hardy though they can’t laugh at what’s happening to themselves: so in this sense of “comic,” people can’t see the ridiculousness of their own position. And this I think my main characters try to do and often succeed in doing. I’m not sure if there is a word to describe this style or characteristic as opposed to the comicness of Laurel and Hardy; I suppose I use the word “irony” for it, but this isn’t really the dictionary definition. It’s something more to do with wit—witty people are certainly conscious of being witty!—to do with a relationship of wittiness within one’s view of oneself. And wittiness I think is kind, and does not have the cruelty of laughing at people who cannot experience the funniness of themselves. Yes, I do laugh at my own work—I get great pleasure from thinking up the funny bits—I find myself laughing in the street; they make me happy.
I: Which is the best time for you; in the midst of the writing or the finishing?
NM: Well the finishing is a great strain—holding so much in one’s head at once—but can be very exciting if I think I’ve pulled something off. Beginning can be “fun” in the sense of being easy—anything is possible because anything car be crossed out. The middle is for the most part a steady slog-e-but if get satisfaction from this. I like the routine of waking up in the morning and knowing I’ve got over the “fun” of the beginning and yet still don’t know whether there’s a book in fact there. There have been three or four stillborn beginnings over the years. Apart from the very end, the best moment I think is when I know out of the blue that the book is there.
I: Let me make an assumption here; that your heroes are similar to you in terms of how their minds work, the kinds of things they observe, the ironic messes they get themselves into. But I am not assuming that your novels are autobiographical, or that the characters are somehow modelled upon yourself. I would think that there is a difference between how they see themselves and how you see them, or at least how you handle them.
NM: I think I touched on this before. Yes, Stephen in Accident and the husband in “Family Game” are like me: I make them like me because this is the best way (it seems to me) that I can create the feeling of my characters seeing themselves as characters in a novel—and thus give the impression that I want to give my readers—of life being a matter that can only successfully be viewed aesthetically. But your last sentence—”there is a difference between how they see themselves and how you handle them”—I’m not sure it is there? There is, I suppose in the sense that I do handle my characters and I do not handle myself–but even this distinction I find myself demurring at. There is, in the sense that I create the stories in which my characters appear; and that I take Very little of the incidents of the stories from real life. But then– life has a way of following the stories. Impossible Object was uncanny in this respect. I started it (and indeed finished it) during the early and fantastical Stages of a relationship; and several years later life had followed it so closely (not directly, but with the sort of close relevance of a dream) that I found myself wary of going out in boats with children.
I: While I am in the midst of “Public House” for the fourth time, let me ask something that you may not know or may not want to explain. it’s this: who the hell is who, or is this a question whose answer is impossible? Now on the one hand I say that the narrator is probably the husband from the first and third stories; but then I say that the man who comes to the bar with the woman is the husband from the other two stories. Then there are two other possibilities (or, “impossibilities”): that “Public House” is a story written by someone from another story, or it is a story about a story which is being made up by the characters within it. Or is it possible that you are keeping the answer to this question quiet even from yourself? And then . . . who is the couple in “Intelligent People”? I am asking you this in the midst of reading the story because if I turn the page I will forget the mathematics.
NM: Basically, there were a husband and wife, A and B, who were the characters in “Family Game” and “A Hummingbird”; and there were another husband and wife, X and Y, who were the characters in “Intelligent People.” Then in “Public House” there was a narrator who saw A come into the pub with Y (these are the two who were in love) and then of course X comes in and catches Y and then A brings in B. The question of who the narrator is”—ah! yes—I had to face up to this when I was doing the script for the film. It seemed to me that he was in some sense the husband of A writing about himself (trying to distance himself and see himself and thus see his predicament as ridiculous but perhaps bearable–aesthetically!). So by this sleight-of-hand I was trying to say what I wanted to say about impossibilities being possible aesthetically. Then in the film script I kept the narrator aspect of A as the character at the centre of “Journey into the Mind”—as the writer who is writing the book about Nietzsche; and who is thus aloof from the wiles of Hippolyta (aloof not, God knows, because he is writing a book about Nietzsche, but because he is a writer!). But then he comes across his old love Y again on the top of the Tower of Pisa, and so-perhaps by the time they are in the restaurant—has become the old character of A as in “Public House” again. (I always saw this moment as the chronological end of the story even after the time of “Intelligent People”–in which X and Y are planning a trip to Italy.) (It was like this in the film: the film ended with A meeting Y again in a square in Rome and saying something like, “Well, I gave you an unhappy end” and she saying something like “You call this happy?” and he sitting down at her table and picking up the menu and saying, “Well, it is isn’t it?”) (I mention the film here because this was when I had to try to be explicit about who was who—A and the narrator were played by the same actor, but the narrator was a Somewhat dream-character—as if he were deliberately A’s “aesthetic” vision of himself.
I: And now I’ve finished “The Sea” again and am remembering both the thrill of seeing certain pieces fall into place and the disconcerting questions it raised for me the other times. For instance, this story leads to an even more ironic reading of “Public House” because this story tells, in effect, what happened when they lived happily ever after. It tells the story from the woman’s point of view and begins to suggest that the narrators of all the stories are very ironic ones—like the narrator of John Fiawkes’ The Second Skin or the narrator of Ford’s The Good Soldier, neither of whom understands the story he tells although each believes he does. So, we’ve that. The dead baby is I think, inevitable; this is a world of opposites . . . . But I think that I am beginning to raise questions that are not appropriate to this novel. questions which will turn you into a very “clever” writer who uses a few tricks to keep the reader guessing.
NM: Well, “The Sea” was A and Y’s “unhappy” end (and thus did make the end of “Public House” somewhat ironic, yes); but the end of “Journey into the Mind” was their coming together again some time after this and thus the hint of a “happy end” (whatever this might mean); also in the idea of a “happy” end were the bits in italics, especially the last one of all—the very end of the book. There was no KEY to the book, but there were a lot of keys to further passages and further doors: if anyone wanted to look. (Which is the only way one finds a door worth finding anyway.) At the end of writing the book I became obsessed by the dead (or was this a story?) baby: and tried to make it explicit that the fair-haired baby in the boat in “The Sea” was in fact possibly still alive (the death had just been a story) as the two-years older child in “Intelligent People” and “Journey into the Mind.” But I could not aesthetically make this too explicit: and so it remained—”those who like unhappy ends can have them, and those who don’t will have to look for them”—which indeed is my message about what I think about life.
To fill in:—”Suicide” was about the husband A being visited by Y and then by his wife B. “Life after Death” was the husband A under the illusion that the husband X had killed himself, etc. My publisher said—Why didn’t I call the husband in “Life after Death” Mostyn instead of Harris, if he was the same person: but I felt it wrong to do this (which I now occasionally regret) because I felt it essential that it should be the reader who IItade the Connections between the stories, and not the writer, who should only give clues. This I did with the letter in story two addressed to “Harris,” etc.
One or two readers had the impression that in fact X and Y in “Intelligent People” were just A and B several years later-rand I quite liked this idea, though I hadn’t in any way intended it myself. (And in fact I don’t think it makes aesthetic sense.)
I: So, to continue with this somewhat more. One of the narrators in Impossible Object complains that literature has not yet confronted the complexities that other art forms have long ago addressed themselves to I suspect that he is thinking in terms of form rather than content, though let’s not get distracted here by talking about the relationship between the two Cubist and abstract painting, for instance are almost a century ahead of literature, although many writers in many uninteresting ways have tried to use such concepts by transferring then into literature. Now, what I am going to ask is this: in other art forms we do not feel compelled to ask “realistic” questions and we do not insist that they be representational, but my last question Was, E suppose, asking you to say which is the “real” story in Impossible Object something perhaps akin to asking where the nude on the staircase is; So, is it appropriate to be asking such a question of this novel?
NM: Cubist painters felt (I suppose) that an Ingres-type portrait was just no longer of any use in portraying what they felt (experienced) about a human being. There is something historical about this and odd:—once Ingres-type portraits were ok, now they are not. (Like the Borges story of the man who Copied out Don Quixote in the 20th century, and could not understand why it was not acceptable.) As you say (as the man in Impossible Object says) literature is just one-hundred years behind. What I don’t like about Joyce for instance is when he seemed to try to tackle this sort of problem with words rather than with ideas or meanings: i.e., the punning of Finnegans Wake, rather than the knowing complexities of witticism and structure. The model for this sort of writing, I think, should be the way the mind works–how it seems to work: or perhaps an effort to explain to itself how the mind works. There is some historical change here. We no longer live by myths (that is, educated men are apt not to live by myths); yet our minds still function in some manner as if dealing with myths. Can we find some mythical (non-mythical?) way of dealing with this? Meta-mythical? Dear god! But I mean—some mythology being knowing about the end of myths. This is what my characters try to do—and hope that other people may too.
I: Now, one of those classic questions: why do you. Write fiction, or perhaps, why did you start to write?
NM: I think I write to try to explain, aesthetically the world to myself; and thus to other people. If I can’t show it to myself, I can’t show it to others. Thus to write for oneself is the best way of writing for others. (An aesthetic view of life depends on a person being in relationship with himself.) I think that there are things about life—comprehensive statements about life—”that can be said in no other way except through fiction. I think that didactic writing can deal with dead things but not with life. I think discourse (Plato) could once deal with life (no, I’m not sure about this; I’ve put this in as a Sop to something or other: I think in fact discourse even with Plato was mostly argy-bargy)—anyway, I think that now the work of art—which in writing for the most part means poetry or fiction—is the only thing that can make a model of life from which human beings can stand back and so have a look at themselves and Life; which is the only way that they (or life) can be bearable. I write to make life possible to myself: and I hope to evoke resonances that will help to make it possible for (a few?) other people.
I: To what degree is your interest as a writer to keep trying to create new “technical” challenges for yourself? You have already described many of the changes that have taken place in your writing but I am wondering to what degree and if you want to continue to make changes.
NM: No, I don’t think the need for change is ever planned, or indeed very conscious. The wordiness of my old style quite suddenly seemed self-indulgent, I suppose that this was connected with some demand for change in my own life, though I was certainly little conscious of this at the time, looking back on it, I think the old style was suitable for describing the sort of characters and the sort of stories I was dealing with then—of people basically trapped within the patterns of their psyches. Robert, in Corruption remained trapped in his pattern of love-renunciation, even after he had his eyes opened to a Certain extent to the nature of his delusions about wickedness and self-pity. Those sentences going on and on were in some way representative of someone being trapped—of someone who wanted to be trapped—who spun words round him.” self like a cocoon. The terser style of the later novels offered gaps, openings, which a character, or reader, could leap Over free himself by. It was a style evolved to try to deal with the possibilities of choice—this way or that. But I cannot remember, oddly, how I explained this to myself at the time. Perhaps something to do with it was the fact that between Corruption and Meeting Place. I had done a bit of journalism? But basically, I think the change was due to my own desire determination, to feel less trapped.
I: The other day in class the old question came up, in relation to John Hawkes, about whether a writer is responsible for “making it easy” for the reader. I said that fiction need not be difficult, but that some fiction is and some isn’t, all of which relates to the requirements of the work itself. Since you made reference to your agent’s reaction to your latest work, I will take this as an opportunity to ask you about this perennial problem.
NM: Yes, I agree exactly with the way you put this. The work, if it is to be a work of art has to have a life of its own: a writer can no more decide to make it “easier” than a parent can decide to make a baby “easier”: if either does, then the work of art and the baby are apt to end up dead. And I think one of the hallmarks of a Work of art is that it should have the sort of potency that some will find difficult and some will not: a work of art has an almost personal relationship with a reader; some will fall in love with it and some will not. This is inevitable with love: the concept that there can be someone, or something, that everyone will fall in love with, is not to do with love at all—but a sort of mass fantasy like that provided by a pop-star. Which has its own potency; but not that of love or art.
I: There is one element of your style and narrative method that I want to ask about. It’s the use of “I thought—. ” I think I understand what you do with this, but I want to know how you came upon it. Now that you have used it and used it in the way you do, it seems incredible that no one had discovered it before.
NM: The origins of “I thought . . . ” I suppose were in William Faulkner, in Light in August and The Wild Palms for instance (both of which I adored when young): Faulkner uses the device of saying “thinking”; and then putting the thoughts in italics. I think I toyed with some imitation of this in my very early novels: then this seemed too obviously derivative, and anyway my characters were very different from Faulkner’s. By the time I came to the later novels—the short separate paragraph. “I thought . . . ” seemed to fit in naturally: this did not seem to be copying anyone else’s device; and it seemed to set out clearly what I wanted to express—the gaps the openings, that there almost always are between thoughts and what is said; between thoughts and activities; the observation of which need not be disheartening, but which can give evidence in some way of a person’s freedom. The nuances between what a person thinks, and what he says that is can provide a sort of wittiness and in this sense a freedom from lugubriousness: also a freedom in the sense that what is being demonstrated is that a person does in fact have a choice in what he does or says—because these may not be quite the same as what he is thinking. All this, by this title was a long way from Faulkner, who usually used his bits in italics as a sort of emphasis to the rest of the prose.
I: I’ve asked you about literary influences, but I should ask you about other kinds as well. I am not asking for a list of everything that you’ve read for the past forty years, but rather for what may have somewhat consciously been used. A few of these you have already mentioned in other responses.
NM: Well, it was only after had finished Natalie Natalia that I consciously began a mass reading specifically in order to get more background material for my writing. I tried to read philosophy, psychology, and not-too-technical science: Popper, Suzanne Langer, Gregory Bateson (these had great effect): also Husserl, Jaspers, etc. But these only affected work which has not yet Conte out. Previously I have always been influenced I think by Jung, and by Nietzsche—the latter being someone (as I said in Impossible Object) who I think has been almost universally misunderstood; since people have taken him to have been talking about politics and society while to me he seems to have been talking about the mind-the problems of coming to terms with the peculiar nature of mind. For the rest—music, opera, ballet, etc., which I adored fairly indiscriminately when young seem to have meant less and less to me as I have grown older: I am still moved by music but I seem to have less need to be moved by music. I still have a passionate feeling, however, whenever I see ballet that I could have been a choreographer—and could have done things—ah!—which are not being done now and are crying to be done. Roughly—choreographers nowadays seem to try to get dancing to illustrate and follow the music, whereas there was a blessed moment when I was young when dancing seemed to be trying to struggle against the music like Jacob Wrestling with the angel. And this was art. Lifar just standing and stamping rather crossly, in L’aprés midi d’une faune. The slow movement of Symphonie Fantastique where Massine just got people sitting on, or walking slowly between ruined pillars. (Perhaps I have dreamed all this.) But this suddenly came into my mind with such force when I thought about influences. There is something akin to my writing here? Music as the underlying drives in a human being: dancing as the possibly quite different movement he is capable of making from them. In painting–I have a passion for Giorgione, which perhaps is a similar thing? There is always some tension in his people between their grave poses, and what they seem to be thinking about. — But in general I have tried to gobble up all I can of art and to use this for my writing: I suppose I expect my readers to have gobbled up a bit too but if they haven’t what matter: it is just that this takes available a whole world which can give resonance and liveliness to writing which otherwise would be impossible–at least with such ease.
I: Here are a number of related questions: When did you first begin to write? What age? At school? Did you think that you would be a writer when you were quite young? Was there a tradition in your family that encouraged you to write?
NM: No, I never wrote at school though there was always quite a lively tradition of writing for school magazines, etc. I have often thought this odd (I wrote one letter to the school magazine in 194 saying how dreadful it was that none of the English masters seemed to have read T.S. Eliot.) When I was in the Army (1942-45) I used to write a bit of poetry, none of it very good and most of it copying either T. S. Eliot or Swinburne (What a combination). I wrote one poem when I was at Oxford just after I had met my first wife which I think was good, and will try to shove it in somewhere one day. But my point in saying all this is that it seems to me now quite striking that although there had been for a long time in the back of my mind the idea that I wanted to be a writer, I did not try to write one word of fiction until after the war when I was about twenty-two. I can’t really explain this. Perhaps there was no one I really wanted to copy: except Faulkner whom I realized would be difficult. I think I must always have had the feeling (as apart from the conscious idea) that words were things that, if one was to do anything worthwhile with them, would be very difficult. I suppose one of the key things here might be that I stammered—when young, stammered badly—I often forget about this now, because although I still stammer a bit it’s almost completely stopped worrying me. But it was hell as a child: and I suppose it put me into an odd relationship with words. They could not just be trotted out, that is: they had to be worked on. But more than this.—Deep in a stammerer’s psyche I think there is an unconscious outrage at the way that people use word—at the way that one is expected to use words—there is a pretence that one is using them for communication, whereas in fact people are protecting themselves attacking others, etc., etc.; and they will not admit this. And the stamerer feels something of this (however unconscious) and in himself goes into confusion. I wonder if indeed there might be something to be said about a connection between my stammering and my writing. If have not really gone into this with myself-another oddity And where there is oddity is there—?—something potent?
In my family writing was certainly something that we honoured, but one did not perhaps make a profession of it. But certainly no one tried to make me anything other than a writer. Of course, having gone to the war almost a child, meant that one had to be treated with a certain respect!
I: I want to ask you about your works of nonfiction at least the ones with which I am familiar—African Switchback, The Life of Raymond Raynes, and Julian Grenfell. My interest here is how or if these works relate to your fiction. I should say that I have found certain “themes” that appear in both your fiction and nonfiction. Are you aware of selecting nonfiction subjects that have some bearing on your fictional themes? And I also want to ask why you write nonfiction in the first place?
NM: The nonfiction works arise from outside circumstances: African Switchback was the result of a project originating from my friend (and novelist) Hugo Charteris: he was doing journalistic work for the Daily Mail: he’d got them to back a journey through West Africa: his original companion dropped out: I jumped at the chance of joining him. I’d just finished Corruption and had no novel in my head. We agreed—he’d do the journalism and I’d do the travel book: like this we could charge up expenses and we got a lot of the equipment—even the Landrover—at a discount. It never really entered my head to write a novel from the experience, because I had not yet moved out of the pattern of my first three novels; which would not include anything so picaresque as a novel about Africa. Hugo in fact did write a novel based on the diamond mines. in Sierra Leone.—Picnic at Pororro which was a good novel. But I don’t see African Switchback as having much to do with my fiction. I was trying to learn to observe things in the outside world—I think I needed this—and Hugo was a good companion because he saw things half with a journalist’s eye.
Raymond Raynes arose because his Community (of the Resurrection) asked me to write a memoir of him after his death and a religious publishing house backed this. I don’t think they expected a book as long as the one I wrote. I was wary of the plan at first because I didn’t feel myself the right person to deal with the church politics and the dogmatic theology, etc.: but I did want to write about Raynes himself because he had played an enormous personal part in my life and I’d seen him as a godlike guru figure and I wanted to find out what made a human being have this power, (This was still in the gap after Corruption when I had no novel in my head.) When I went into Raynes’s life I think I found some sort of answers to the things that had been blocking me about writing novels–I had felt that to write a novel about a “good” life was impossible; both because the drama of a good life was not visible, and because it was impossible to be a “good” person while one was writing a novel—the day-to-day business of writing a novel being too self-obsessive! Going into Raynes’s life introduced me to the idea that of course all worthwhile things seem impossible: you just do them, and trust, and what comes out is—well—at least there. I did think he was a saint: but I had all the way through the research and the writing of the book the feeling that there was something unsatisfactory about even this extraordinary sanctity-r-that even Raynes himself felt this. His sort of sanctity did make him seem to be “transparent” to some sort of force working through him—but it also, literally, killed him—because he pared his health away till there was nothing left. I think even he was haunted by the idea that there might be some “way of affirmation” (as theologians say) that might be more satisfactory than the “way of negation” of traditional sanctity—leading to martyrdom. So I perhaps did feel Raynes as some sort of prototype for the heroes of my novels: but I think my heroes are always asking this question—surely a good life is possible, in some sense other than by that of having to pare oneself away to a sort of martyrdom? That is, they want to find “integration” in some Jungian sense, which I do not think Raynes ever felt was within his sphere. But he recognized it in other people,
I think my characters are asking—in what ways is integration different from, or similar to sainthood? It seems to me sainthood is a cutting-down to simplicity: what my characters come to hope for is the ability to embrace complexity. At the end of Natalie Natalia, specifically. But also in the earlier novels of that batch. In the three early novels, which I see forming a separate batch, I think perhaps my heroes did not see anything much better to hope for than martyrdom (or resignation),
Julian Grenfell arose because I’d always had my eye on those family papers and felt that there might be an extraordinary story there and when there was it seemed just to be there of itself and I never thought of turning it into a novel. But Julian himself of course personified many of these themes and it was the realization that this might be so that had of course attracted me in the first place. He was someone who insisted that there should be a “way of affirmation” in which one could be a good person and have a good life-and he was simply defeated in this-so that at the end he settled, somewhat savagely, to be a martyr. But I thought he’d put up a good fight for his time and his class. I’ve had it in mind that I might one day use his background as material for a novel.
I: Can you explain the reasons for the difference in style and technique between the second section and the first-and-third sections of Natalie Natalia?
NM: Well, the second section of Natalie was to do with—what—his journey in his mind, his journey to Africa, how these were interconnected. That opening chunk of prose to Part II was his (Greville’s) effort as it were to make a diagram of his mind-the sort of patterning he was stuck with–not in terms of what was happening to him in the outside world (Parts I and III) but the basic archetypal stuff that was there already; like the stuff, and the patterning, that produces dreams. I found it very hard to write this bit and have never been sure if it comes off. But I felt it vital to try to express what I felt; which was—Look; we react of course to what happens in the outside world but there is also this archetypal patterning inside us which is how we interpret what happens: and surely to be able to be free in any way of the patterning, we have to be able to make some sort of model of it to be able to have a look at it.
Then the rest of Part II in Africa, was half back to the outside world again but also half with one eye knowing the determining powers of patterning: Greville half knew he was “cracking up”: but he also could see the patterning that it was in his interests to appear to “crack up”: that unconsciously he was almost deliberately encouraging this to happen as a means of getting out of the politics he was fed up with, and as a means of covering up what amounted to a betrayal of his job by passing on the message to Ndoula. So his letters home are half saying—Look I am cracking up; and half, Look I am beginning to make sense of myself because I can see myself. Then when he gets back to England, he is for the most part having to deal with the outside world again.
I: Do you ever find yourself having to write “bad” prose—stilted language, clumsy dialogue, clichés, etc.? That is, outside the story it would be “bad,” but in Context the story requires it and you of course control it.
NM: No, I think I’ve felt this as a problem, but not much used it. The problem of how to write about boredom, or boring people, without being boring. I think some writers do this skillfully. But I don’t think it’s ever been a point I’ve been trying to make. I’ve quite often been accused of only writing about “glamorous” people: and I’ve never quite known what to reply to this. I think I feel that if a writer is obsessed with cliché-ridden people then he’s using his contempt of them in a suspect way—like a mother who keeps her children awful so that she can have power over them. I think I’d like to reply to the “glamorous” charge that I think almost everyone could be “glamorous” in this sense (not cliché-ridden) if they liked, but a lot of people don’t like, but couldn’t one encourage them to by not condescending to them?
I: I have been amazed in several interviews I’ve done to come across writers who are unable, perhaps unwilling, to see their work as a “whole,” especially in relation to themes that seem to recur in their work. At any rate, do you think that the differences among your books are greater than the similarities? Do you see your next book, for instance, as something quite independent from your others?
NM: I do see a break in both content and style between my first three novels and the ones that came after. I think as I’ve said earlier, the protagonists of Spaces of the Dark, The Rainbearers, and Corruption could not find any better way of staying alive than by some sort of “negative” way—if not martyrdom then slightly nostalgic resignation (and this god knows is the theme of a large part of European literature). From Meeting Place on to Natalie the protagonists were trying to make impossibilities possible by some sort of affirmation–if only acceptance. (I think Assassins is rather apart from all this.) But more than acceptance–an active, embracing acceptance. I think the difference in the style mirrored this: the long tortuous sentences of the early novels were suited to people trapped in the toils of their conditioning the briefer, pithier sentences of the later novels were suited to people always with the hope at least of breaking out-like radiation from atoms. But overall yes, I do see a unity: there seems to be a progression in the novels which is natural: it is natural that one should feel trapped by conditioning, and should have to learn how to get out. All life is a learning. And so on. If I ever wrote about my own work I should yes, write about it as a whole; and I suppose I’d write about it in some parallel relation to my life. But I think it is interesting that it is probably hard for a writer to see his own recurring themes—apart from his attitudes or styles. I suppose these themes are expressions of what are built into his psyche in such a way that it is difficult for him to see them.
I: Can you in the abstract say what a good line of prose looks like? I will be content if you can tell me what a good line of Mr. Mosley’s prose looks like. And to be even more generous, I will suggest that a line of prose, like a sweater, is good only if it fits. That is, it depends upon where and how it is supposed to function. But, to take back my generosity, I should also say that good prose is almost always immediately seen.
NM: Well the bits of prose of mine that I like are the ones that contain, formally and in content paradoxes, impossibilities, that embrace themselves. The last sentence of Natalie. The last sentence of African Switchback even though I haven’t got this with me as I write. But this hasn’t really answered your question about good prose. Lt. should be immediately seen, yes. It is some sort of liveliness. Liveliness depends on some sort of springiness: tension. This is where the matter of paradox comes in. A live thing is different from a dead thing because it has to be continually re-forming itself to stay the same. Applied to a sentence, this means there have to be reverberations of sound and meaning–to produce the one exact note!
I: Are there subjects which you have tried to write about that, for whatever reasons, you were not able to? I do not mean and am not asking whether you ever wanted to write about life on Chicago’s South Side but for some strange reason couldn’t do it. What I do have in mind are certain emotions or relationships or characters.
NM: No, I am not aware of this. I’m conscious, I suppose that I find it hard to write about mothers: my own mother died when I was nine. This is perhaps a lack. But I’m not sure what of. I mean—my feelings are not that I have masses to say about mothers (or the lack of having had a mother) that I want to tap but can’t: it’s rather that I don’t seem to have anything to say about mothers, while to other people this seems to be a very important relationship.
I: This is another one of those classic, perhaps trite, questions, but which is interesting all the same. Where does your ability to create come from? The piece of paper goes into the machine or the blank writing pad is before you: then you start filling in the blankness re-what a character says what he thinks what he doesn’t think what the sea looks like, etc. Whatever planning goes on ahead of time does not account for the words that finally emerge. When I ask writers about this, there is usually a lull in the conversation and frequently a slight smile, because, I suspect there is no answer.
NM: No, I don’t know where it comes from. Some art critic has made the distinction between carving and modelling in sculpture—a carver chips away at the wood or stone because he feels what he wants to get is already there: a modeler has to build up what he wants to get. I feel I’m very much a “carving” sort of writer. I feel convinced that something’s there and I just have to go chipping away at it till it emerges. When I write the first draft of a novel I know that there may be scarcely one sentence that will survive to the final novel: but it doesn’t dismay me when I cross the whole thing out the second time through: the first draft had just been the block which I can Work on. But I do sometimes despair, of course, whether the thing (imagined or required) will come out. Or was ever there. But then, nearly always, in title, it is,
But where does this come from? I think almost by definition this cannot be known. If it was, would one have to carve it? There can be aesthetic or metaphysical statements about this: but for the most part they do little more than suggest new words for the mystery. I think all this does lead to some sort of mysticism: but inability to talk about this is perhaps decent; not a lack
I: Finally, since “accident” is the title of one of your novels, perhaps this question is appropriate for you. Do you use “accidents” in your work; by accidents I mean those things which you accidentally come across while working—an item in the newspaper, a piece of conversation you overhear at a party, an advertisement you see, a letter that you receive, or whatever? Do some perhaps help solve problems that you may be having with a character or scene?
NM: Yes, I find my work stuffed with these sorts of accidents. A day or two ago I was going to have to go through a scene in my new novel the next day and I knew it was unsatisfactory; it was about a pop concert; and I called in my eighteen-year-old daughter who was playing some records by someone called Iggy Pop: whom I thought very remarkable! and sailed through my chipping away at the pop scene the next day. This is fairly trivial: but there are so many ways in which accidents and coincidences in life do seem to guide what I write that the feeling becomes, as above, almost mystical: which, again, is perhaps better not to talk about: because what suitable language is there? There are just the facts; and the connections. I suppose what can be said is that all this depends on a talent just to use whatever turns up; and perhaps to put oneself in the way of things turning up. On the other hand, one sometimes misses obvious connections. For some time recently my publisher has been pressing me for a title for a novel that I finished a month or two ago: I could not think of one and he made unsuitable suggestions. Parallel to this I had been interested for some time in something I’d chanced on in a science column of a newspaper called “Catastrophe Theory”—which is some mathematical theory worked out to explain how change occurs in the life-sciences in sudden jumps, as opposed to changes in material sciences which occur under pressure Smoothly And I thought this would be a good image for the workings of a novel, Then the idea came to me (walking in the street) that a good overall title for my complex work might be “Catastrophe Practice”—but this idea came to me very reluctantly, I almost dismissed it, and it was only after a good deal of time that it began to seem absolutely right.
Here’s a P.S. to the matter of “accidents.” The other day, about eight years after the finishing of Natalie, I was rung up by the Sunday Times newspaper and was asked—would I like to go on a delicate reporting mission to Rhodesia for them; though the facts of what I was going for would have to remain largely secret etc., etc. I felt—what could I say but Yes? The request was so unlikely! And it came just at the time when I’d got “Catastrophe Practice” wrapped up (the journalistic assignment—to see how people are dealing with the impending catastrophe in Rhodesia) and I was even coming to the end of a draft of my new novel. So—if you don’t hear from me again—imagine that I have ridden a bicycle over the Victoria Falls, thinking it to be an empty swimming pool.
– John O’Brien